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Misrepresenting Chomsky-101

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One of the endless efforts involved in trying to understand Chomsky concerns constantly shaking off the urge to identify with -isms. This is, perhaps, best summarised by Chomsky's simple approach to determining moral yardsticks - if it's wrong when they do it, then it's wrong when we do it. In other words, and perhaps as the historian Howard Zinn once put it, "there's no flag large enough to cover the killing of innocent people". It's not that hard to understand, really... or at least, it shouldn't be. Intentions and desires, whether they are good or bad, cannot be used to justify the adverse material effects of oppressive actions on ordinary people. If somebody is stepping on your throat with a thick-soled boot, it would hardly make a difference whether the foot inside the boot is the left foot or the right foot.

However, this simple piece of logic seems to elude a lot of people! Both on the left and the right, and everywhere along the spectrum in between. Some time back the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, an ardent proponent of New Atheism who somehow also claims to be a "secular Jew", wrote a ranting post about how Chomsky goes "off the rails" at times. Those times that Coyne was referring to, of course, involves instances where Chomsky refuses to accept the Just Cause excuse usually paraded around during the many attempts at justifying US and Israeli atrocities. According to Coyne this is too much, because Chomsky apparently fails to see the good intentions (in the case of US) and existential factors (in the case of Israel) involved in these efforts. Yet, Coyne the "secular Jew", with his firm conviction in Judaism-as-a-community-not-a-religion, fails to apply the same principles of good intentions and existential need to the Middle-East, the Khmer Rouge (on which also Coyne and his commenting audience deliberately misrepresent Chomsky, even though Chomsky's position was clear enough even to ABC.) and the Palestinian dispossessed. Coyne's naivety is transparent, and his ignorance of the issues obvious, as he offers no non-fictitious reasons for his arguments (the comment section of his blog is an equally unhappy testimony of the intellectual depth of his audience), nor asks any meaningful political questions. Why is Israel allowed to mow down the Palestinian nation, after the land was stolen from them by the British? If the Israeli imperialists (let's not equate them with "Jews", for that would be insulting the memories of numerous Jewish intellectuals who have been persecuted by the fascist Israeli regime. Norman Finkelstein or Michel Warschawski, anybody?) are allowed to return to their land by any means necessary, what divine dictate/natural law forbids the Palestinians from so doing? Coyne is not bothered by such lofty questions, obviously.

But Coyne is not alone! Coyne's political affiliations hardly demand more than a second's contemplation - he is an exceptionalist, no matter which end of the left-right spectrum he ends up on. For Coyne, things that are wrong when others do it are not necessarily wrong when he does it (a hallmark of the religious cult of New Atheism). The somewhat amusing problem in Coyne's take is the fact that he simply fails to display any understanding of Chomsky's political analyses whatsoever. Coyne argues more like an upset toddler proclaiming "My daddy strongest!!", and less like a political activist/analyst trying to unravel the historical underpinnings of a crisis. Arguments from emotional yearning are hardly any more useful than arguments from authority.

But it is not the worst of crimes to be blindly emotional (even if in a partisan fashion), and certainly not something only Coyne is guilty of. He does seem to exhibit a somewhat proper understanding of Chomsky's scientific works, and perhaps his failure to expose his own friends as harshly (and willingly) as his opponents should be seen more as a fairly common moral failing and less as a devious tactic. After all, this same problem has been proliferating the radical left for a long time as well. From Foucault's stunning failure to grasp basic moral truisms, to the bitterness in the 1960s about Chomsky's lack of animosity towards sociobiology and his disinterest in the Weather Underground, the radical left has never truly been too fond of Chomsky. There are exceptions, of course, in such intellectuals as Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Tariq Ali, Eqbal Ahamd and the like. But a brief glance through various writings and speeches of such raving Maoists as Julia Kristeva, and general Parisian left in Lacan and co. would tell one that while they will probably not badmouth Chomsky in public (because, after all, Chomsky is hardly on the other side), the perception of Chomsky in those circles is not quite charitable. The complaint has largely remained the same over the years -- Chomsky is allegedly not radical enough. Recently, two related pieces by Stephen Gowans (here and here) have started playing this same old record. There is absolutely nothing new in Gowans' pieces, neither in the way of his complaints nor in their ideological underpinnings, and his failings are much the same as Coyne's. Only Gowans is coming at it from the other end.

Gowans begins my accusing Chomsky, and his co-author Gilbert Achcar, of serving the global dictatorial agenda. Gowans reaches this startling conclusion by more or less the same means through which countless people on both the left and right have reached similar conclusions before him - exceptionalism. The starting point of Gowans' grievance concerns Chomsky's criticism of the late Venezuelan president, and "his former friend", Hugo Chavez. Gowans then notes that Chomsky has denied 'betraying his former friend', and decides that this denial amounts to lying. Exactly why this is so, that is how did Chomsky betray Chavez, how he denied it, and why Gowans thinks Chomsky is engaging in denialism, unfortunately, is never discussed. It seems more an expression of Gowans' anger at Chomsky for being critical of the Venezuelan government in recent times than a conclusion reached based on evidence. For his part, Chomsky has, to his credit, been remarkably consistent in his analyses of Venezuela. He largely considers Chavez a positive influence, and is approving of the development of Venezuelan sovereignty under Chavez-socialism. He has talked quite elaborately about the circumstances under which Chavez came to power, and his role in the increasingly shrinking influence of U.S. interventionism in Latin America, and his tone here remains remarkably positive. However, like any responsible and fact-driven intellectual, Chomsky does not fail to notice the corruption scandals that have rocked Venezuela during the final years of Chavez. Chavez appears not to have been personally involved, but Chomsky notes rightly that he did fail to stop the corruption which in turn adversely affected the growth of socialism in Venezuela. Chomsky provides a brief summary of what he sees in the Venezuelan picture in this interview with Primo Nutmeg.

But Gowans takes issue with this approach, clearly. In one essay he begins by arguing that Chomsky did, in fact, criticise Chavez, but later denied doing so. This is less of a fact, and more of a figment of Gowans' imagination. In his own words:

So, Chomsky tells Carroll that concentration of executive power is an assault on democracy, that there’s a tendency toward concentration in Venezuela, and that in his judgement the circumstances don’t require it.

So how is it that the headline “Noam Chomsky criticises old friend Hugo Chavez for ‘assault’ on democracy” is deceptive and dishonest? Granted, Chavez might not be an old friend, at least not in the literal sense, but the Observer headline hardly seems to misrepresent Chomsky’s words.

Gowans' question is easily answered. What Chomsky is talking about is a general problem with concentration of executive power. This should be familiar to everyone from Mao's China, or for that matter from Russell's writings from his visits to the USSR. The aim of a workers' revolution is to shift the power to make decisions to the working class in general, not to construct nominal vanguards through whom a minority of the population can continue to wield unchecked control over power and wealth. Further, Chomsky doesn’t even specifically refer to Venezuela in the comments Gowans cites. Clearly he was talking about democracy in general.

Here’s what Chomsky told the Observer:

Carroll: Finally, professor, the concerns about the concentration of executive power in Venezuela: to what extent might that be undermining democracy in Venezuela?

Chomsky: Concentration of executive power, unless it’s very temporary, and for specific circumstances, let’s say fighting world war two, it’s an assault on democracy.

Carroll: And so in the case of Venezuela is that what’s happening or at risk of happening?

Chomsky: As I said you can debate whether circumstances require it—both internal circumstances and the external threat of attack and so on, so that’s a legitimate debate—but my own judgement in that debate is that it does not.

Gowans also rather conveniently interpolates the content of the interview to serve his intended reading. Earlier in the interview, Chomsky actually tells Caroll:

“Anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo and it has to be guarded against. Whether it’s over too far in that direction in Venezuela I’m not sure but I think perhaps it is” 

Chomsky clearly is not saying that Venezuela is regressing, but rather expressing concern over a trend with post-revolution societies that we have all seen in the past. Beware caudillismo, is Chomsky's intended message here. It is too bad that Gowans, blinded by his armchair radical-ness, is willing to skid over lessons learned from history. I am not so sure members of the radical left who have some actual field experience in resistance movement would agree with Gowans' readings. But don't trust me, ask Tariq Ali, perhaps!

In his second essay, equally as bad in logical consistency, Gowans takes issue with Chomsky's concern over the imprisonment of Venezuelan judge María Lourdes Afiuni. Afiuni had previously decided in favor of Eligio Cedeno in 2009. Cedeno, who was facing corruption charges, immediately fled the country. To what extent Afiuni is responsible for this, in the sense that the judgement was premeditated so as to facilitate the escape act, is speculation. But Gowans, sans evidence, is willing to impose upon his readers the idea that Afiuni's complicit-ness should be taken for granted. Now, let's get something straight. We all know the ability of the rich and powerful to influence judicial systems. And Afiuni may well have acted in bad faith. However, in any democratic society the office occupied by a person (in some cases, at least) are of greater importance than the character of the occupant. For an elected politician to be arbitrarily able to declare a sitting judge "enemy of the revolution", and then detain him/her sets a dangerous precedence. Such a society is less on the road to socialism and more en route the counter-revolutionary path of Leninist Bolshevism. The fact that reactionary forces will inevitably try to exploit such popular institutions (as the U.S. has done at home and abroad for the last century) does not imply that a socialist revolution does away with such tools of liberty. Quite the contrary, only by defending such tools against imperialist aggression can true anarcho-syndicalist societies be instituted. Gowans, while he offers no evidence of familiarity with the nature of the revolutions in Catalonia (1936) and present-day Rojava, merely seems to suggest that "all is justified in the name of the revolultion". The evidence against such authoritarian bureaucratic regimes turning into socialist paradises is insurmountable. In fact, Gowans own words from a reading of historical events makes the same points. In this essay, Gowans compares Chomsky's examples about exceptional circumstances during World War II to U.S. interventions in Venezuela:

Chomsky took issue with Chavez jailing people who threatened the Bolivarian Revolution, arguing that such harsh measures were only warranted “for specific circumstances, let’s say fighting world war two.” The implication was that US efforts to block the reform program set in train by Hugo Chavez—the 2002 coup, the attempted 2019 coup, economic warfare, destabilization, military intimidation, US-organized diplomatic pressure on the government to step down—were not of the same magnitude as WWII and therefore emergency measures were unwarranted.

Unfortunately for Gowans, he is actually right. Only he doesn't seem to realise why and how! The situations surrounding World War II are in no way comparable to the ones in Venezuela. First, as I mentioned before, just because the U.S. is trying to deconstruct and exploit the Venezuelan judicial and political system does not imply that Venezuelans simply go ahead and destroy it themselves. That is counter-revolutionary, and it serves the purpose of U.S. imperialism. Chavez made a strategic mistake by imprisoning a judge for delivering a judgement, and as Gowans himself notes, without realising, it merely gave the U.S. an opportunity to paint Chavez as a dictator. This is precisely what Chomsky was warning against.

Second, such acts of arbitrary imprisonment is a hallmark of U.S. settler-colonialism. Just ask any Japanese-American who served time in the Japanese internment camps during World War II! In fact, Gowans himself cites this example, but again draws the wrong conclusions from it:

During both the first and second world wars, the United States suspended civil liberties, jailed dissidents and potential fifth columnists, and concentrated authority in the presidency, including the authority to direct the economy. Yet the threat posed to the United States by its enemies was vanishingly small. The United States, or at least the North American part of it, was protected on either side by two vast oceans and two friendly countries. There was no chance the WWI Central Powers would cross the Atlantic to invade the United States, and no chance either of fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, or militarist Japan crossing thousands of miles of ocean to launch a general assault on continental US soil. Nor were any of these enemies in a position to engage in anti-US economic warfare of any consequence, or to engineer a coup d’état in Washington.

Right off the bat it is worth noting that "militarist Japan" did launch an attack on Pearl Harbor. But then, so has the U.S. launched uncountable attacks on Latin American sovereignty. But even so, this particular example does not benefit Gowans' points at all. Instances of one country violating the sovereignty of another one is littered throughout history. It has been done under all kinds of guise - from early European colonialism to more recent American implementation of their "manifest destiny", and the many transgressions of the USSR in the Balkan regions. There is nothing new about either expansionist aggression, or using anti-expansionism as the excuse to achieve your own political and economic ends. Of course, this does not imply that something of such magnitude is being carried out in Venezuela, nor has Chomsky ever implied so. The real question still remains the same - is a move towards authoritarianism justified or even advisable? Chomsky is not naive to pressing dangers, or the fact that desperate times call for desperate measures, and he has repeatedly made that clear in his many interviews on the Cuban situation. What differentiates the Venezuelan situation from the one faced by Cuba fifty or so years back is the fact that Latin America has, to a large extent, been able to shake off American influence in recent years. The economic conferences of Latin America, where U.S. interventionism was a norm, has of late completely locked the U.S. out. True, there has been resurgence in right-wing extremism, as seen in the case of Brazil recently. However, the tactics of authoritarian political imprisonment that Chomsky is skeptical off, and Gowans seems to have no problems with, is exactly the modus operandi employed by the current Brazilian (and American) government.

So, then, one must ask, if Gowans is right and Chomsky (and the rest of the conscientious axiological left) were to embrace a similar tactics, then barring superfluous labels of -isms, what differentiates a socialist society from a corporate-capitalist militarist one? Gowans' complaint seems to be less about achieving socialism, and more hinged upon mirroring the behaviour and policies of those who he claims to abhor. Gowans doesn't have a problem with oppression, he has a problem with specific (types of) people being oppressive and dictatorial. Hardly the mark of an intellectual moved by concerns of civil and political rights. If you don't agree with civil rights for all, then you don't agree with it at all. Yes, such rights are hard to defend when they are abundant. But that is exactly the point of a socialist revolution, as everyone from Marx to Bakunin would tell you.

But perhaps this a bit too much to expect from Gowans, given his mode of engaging in conversation with his critics (see below):

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Barring the occasional critical voice, the comment sections of Gowans' essays are littered with equally imbecilic rants, including one where the commenting author speculates that the entire "Cognitive Revolution" was a military-industrial conspiracy, because studying the biological mind requires isolating it from social and cultural practices. Clearly, biology itself is a conspiracy for these ignoramuses (if you really know Latin, you'd see why ignorami is not really applicable here).

Essays such as Gowans', and perhaps it is a little too generous to call it an "essay" (more of a propaganda piece), serve little purpose than to create an image of the entire left (which Gowans and co. are clearly not representatives of) as dogmatic, anti-science, anti-intellectual, authoritarian goons. That serves little purpose for anyone, except perhaps those who would like to see the left maligned. In trying to get one over one of the most courageous and consistent voice of the left, Gowans has provided another tool to the right. Albeit, a rather dull and over-used one.